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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 February 2007, 05:08 GMT
Government reprieve for Mr Big?
By Gerry Northam
BBC File On 4

The Assets Recovery Agency is on target to meet its costs this year
Over the past four years, a team of 200 financial investigators, lawyers and customs officers has been working away quietly tracking down and seizing the proceeds of crime.

Now the government has decided to close the Assets Recovery Agency down and transfer its caseload and powers to other parts of the criminal justice system.

Some experts fear this could mean that the effort will slowly fizzle out.

So what's gone wrong?

In February 2003 it all seemed so simple.

Tony Blair launched the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) with high hopes.

They were going to hit the drug dealers enjoying a champagne lifestyle, and the criminals in their luxury mansions.

"We are going to ensure they no longer profit from their life of crime," he said.

Once the ARA got to work, no-one would be beyond their reach.

But reality was quick to dawn.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair promised that gangsters would not profit from crime

For a start, many of the most notorious barons of organised crime turned out to be well beyond the ARA's reach, having made their millions more than 12 years ago and ruled exempt from investigation by the government's own law.

Then it was found that cases dragged slowly through the courts as a succession of Mr Bigs (or more often Mr Small-to-Middlings) used every legal ruse available to put off the day when their assets would be seized.

Did this really come as a surprise?

No money brought in

There was a particularly long delay in sorting out another obvious problem in the law - the lack of legal representation for people whose property fell under suspicion.

The law prevented them from using their own frozen funds to pay a lawyer and, when it turned out most couldn't get legal aid either, they were left defenceless.

Precious time was lost putting this right.

Faced with these and other difficulties, the agency brought in no money at all in its first year (just as expected in its business plan) and less than half its target in years 2 and 3.

This meant that it failed to meet another target: to become self-financing by the financial year 2005/2006.

Last summer, a Conservative MP put out a short, damning, report on the agency which accused it of underperformance.

When the author, Grant Shapps, was invited to visit the agency shortly afterwards, he found a dedicated hard-working team struggling to meet the expectations which had been raised so high at their launch.

Target met

And yet successes were beginning to roll in, and with them serious amounts of money for the Treasury.

In Northern Ireland, there were big hits against gangsters linked to a range of paramilitary organisations.

Then three months ago, the agency and its Irish counterpart went into settlement negotiations over a huge VAT fraud and walked away the proud owners of 18m, a villa in Marbella and four racehorses.

As a result, this financial year the ARA is on track to bring in more than its own running costs - target met.

Officials at the agency complain privately that they weren't given enough time to prove themselves.

In Belfast, the decision to scrap the ARA is met with ill-concealed anger from leading political parties, who weren't consulted, and even the Chief Constable has expressed his reservations in public.

There are mainstream party leaders who wonder aloud if it isn't a sop to help win Gerry Adams' support for policing.

The timing is at least a remarkable coincidence.

All this is denied by the government, which argues that assets recovery will proceed full steam ahead under its new banner when the ARA is abolished next year.

But people deeply involved in cases remain pessimistic and wonder if a golden opportunity is being lost, to seize the major proceeds of crime.

Hear the full story on Radio 4: File on 4 Tue 13 Feb 2007 GMT or online at the File on 4 website

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